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Compelling Evidence That Wider Lanes Make City Streets More Dangerous

The rate of side impact crashes is lowest on urban streets with lanes about 10.5 feet wide — much narrower than the standard 12 feet. Graph: Dewan Karim

The “forgiving highway” approach to traffic engineering holds that wider is safer when it comes to street design. After decades of adherence to these standards, American cities are now criss-crossed by streets with 12-foot wide lanes. As Walkable City author Jeff Speck argued in CityLab last year, this is actually terrible for public safety and the pedestrian environment.

A new study reinforces the argument that cities need to reconsider lane widths and redesign streets accordingly. In a paper to be presented at the Canadian Institute of Traffic Engineers annual conference, author Dewan Masud Karim presents hard evidence that wider lanes increase risk on city streets.

Karim conducted a wide-ranging review of existing research as well as an examination of crash databases in two cities, taking into consideration 190 randomly selected intersections in Tokyo and 70 in Toronto.

Looking at the crash databases, Karim found that collision rates escalate as lane widths exceed about 10.5 feet.

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FHWA Proposes to Let States Fail Their Own Safety Goals With Impunity

Secretary Anthony Foxx has made clear that safety — and specifically, safety for bicyclists and pedestrians — is a priority of his administration. If that’s true, his administration sure has a funny way of showing it.

More of this happening on your state's roadways? Bring it! FHWA doesn't mind. Photo: ##

More of this happening on your state’s roadways? Bring it! FHWA doesn’t mind. Photo: Post-Standard

The Federal Highway Administration’s proposal on safety performance measures allows states to fail to meet half their own safety targets without consequences. And it gives the seal of approval to worsening safety performance as long as people in that state are driving more.

The MAP-21 transportation bill was cheered for instituting performance measures, but it left it the details up to U.S. DOT. The first of three Notices of Proposed Rulemakings — U.S. DOT’s proposals for how to set up this system of accountability — was released earlier this week. This one is on safety; the next two will be on 1) infrastructure condition and 2) congestion and system performance. These rulemakings are slipping behind schedule but were always expected to be implemented well after MAP-21 expires September 30.

People on foot and on bikes “left out”

First, bike and pedestrian advocates are bitterly disappointed that their demand for a separate performance measure on vulnerable road users was not included. “Once again, bicyclists have been left out,” said Bike League President Andy Clarke in a blog post Tuesday. “We know that without a specific target to focus the attention of state DOTs and USDOT on reducing bicyclist and pedestrian deaths within the overall number — we get lost in the shuffle.”

DOT is requesting comments on how a performance measure for bicyclists and pedestrians might be possible, but also makes clear it’s unlikely to implement one. The agency says it’s looking for the smallest possible number of performance measures, noting that “separating specific types of fatalities… leads to numbers too statistically small to provide sufficient validity for developing targets.”

We’ve asked FHWA for comment for this story. We’ll update when we hear back.

50 percent failure = A for effort

The only four performance measures FHWA is requiring are: 1) number of fatalities, 2) rate of fatalities, 3) number of serious injuries, and 4) rate of serious injuries. States can choose to add separate targets for urbanized and non-urbanized areas.

Things go from bad to worse in Section 490.211: “Determining Whether a State DOT Has Made Significant Progress Toward Achieving Performance Targets.” Here, it becomes clear that FHWA intends to let states skirt accountability entirely.

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Menlo Park Expands Red Light Photo Enforcement Program

IIHS red light running crash photo

Red light enforcement cameras are effective in reducing the number of injury collisions, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Photo: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Last week, the Menlo Park City Council voted to extend its red light photo enforcement program for an additional five years and add a fifth red light camera at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Chilco Street, where 20 collisions have resulted in 14 injuries and one fatality since 2008. A temporary test camera installed at the intersection on March 11 recorded 217 red light violations by drivers in only 12 hours.

On August 24, 2011, 64-Year-Old Richard Buckley was killed in a collision with a car while riding his bicycle across the six-lane Bayfront Expressway at that intersection during this lunch break. Buckley, who worked at nearby Tyco Electronics, began cycling for exercise after suffering a heart attack a few years earlier.

The intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Avenue, the entrance to Facebook’s headquarters, was the site of two fatalities resulting from side-impact collisions in which drivers ran a red light.

In November 2009, 6-year-old Menlo Park resident and Laurel School student Lisa Xavier was killed when her family’s car was struck in the intersection by the driver of a Ford Mustang heading north on Bayfront Expressway who ran the red light. The driver, suspected to be the Mustang’s owner, local resident Shannon Fox, was never apprehended. In April 2007, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam was killed as the passenger in a side-impact collision, after his driver, UC Berkeley graduate student Kevin Jones, ran the red light while turning left onto Willow Road. Jones was charged with vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to 200 hours of community service.

Lisa Xavier & David Halberstam portraits

Lisa Xavier (left) and David Halberstam (right) were both killed in side-impact collisions resulting from drivers running a red light at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road in Menlo Park. Photos: San Jose Mercury News (left), San Francisco Chronicle / Michael Maloney (right).

A total of four red light photo enforcement cameras were installed a year after Halberstam was killed, one at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road, two at El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue (facing north and south), and one at El Camino Real and Glenwood Avenue (facing north).

Heyward Robinson, who served on the City Council when the cameras were installed, described them as “a cost effective means of enforcing an important traffic law,” in an email to the current City Council. “They operate 24/7 with no salary, overtime, or benefit costs. The bottom line is that our roads and community are safer with these cameras than without them,” he wrote.

The rate of red light running has indeed dropped steadily every year since the cameras were installed, with the number of citations issued dropping from 6,381 in 2009 to 3,898 in 2012, a reduction of about 40 percent. The number of collisions that have occurred at the camera-enforced intersections dropped from 141 in the five years before the cameras were installed to 103 in the five years after they were installed, according to Menlo Park police.

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Sunnyvale Latest City to Consider Anti-Harassment Law for Bike Riders

A groundbreaking law adopted in Los Angeles almost one year ago that allows bicycle riders to take civil action against drivers who harass them continues to generate local and national interest, with Sunnyvale becoming the latest city to consider enacting protections.

“So many (drivers) seem to think it’s like basketball rules: no hit, no foul. If they don’t hit you, they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong,” said Kevin Jackson, a longtime member of the Sunnyvale Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC). “In their minds, it’s not something they feel they have to ever explain to a cop or anything.”

But under a proposed ordinance expected to be adopted by the Sunnyvale City Council on July 17, drivers who threaten or distract bike riders could be taken to court and would have to explain themselves to a judge. Fashioned after the Los Angeles law, it would make drivers liable for damages starting at $1,000.

“Sunnyvale wants to encourage people to ride bicycles rather than drive motor vehicles in order to lessen traffic congestion and improve air quality,” the ordinance states. “Riding a bicycle on City streets poses hazards to bicyclists, and these hazards are amplified by the actions of persons who deliberately harass and endanger bicyclists because of their status as bicyclists.”

Jackson said city staffers, including the police department, were initially opposed to studying the idea based on some misunderstandings. But they eventually agreed to look into it, produced a report that won praise from advocates, and recommended that an anti-harassment law be adopted. The ordinance’s initial reading passed the Sunnyvale City Council June 19 by a vote of 6-1, with Councilmember Jim Davis, an ex-police officer, opposed.

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Mapping the Consequences of Our Automobile Addiction

Leave it to the Brits to create an incredible tool for examining America’s own crisis of traffic fatalities. Behold this somber map, made by ITO World, a UK-based transportation information firm. Each dot on the map is a traffic-related death. The entire eastern United States is blanketed with them.

The purple dots represent vehicle occupants – not necessarily drivers – who were killed. It may look like a lot of purple, and it certainly is, but when you zoom in closer you see a lot of blue dots, for pedestrians, as well as an awful lot of yellow dots, for motorcyclists. The green dots for bicyclists are fewer and farther between, but if you zoom into the cities, you’ll find them. Each dot even lists the year of the crash and the victim’s age and gender.

ITO World got their fatality data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It appears they’ve captured not just fatalities on highways but on local streets as well.

The World Health Organization reports 12.3 annual traffic deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the United States. Compare that with 3.85 in Japan and 4.5 in Germany. If the U.S. achieved similar rates, more than 20,000 deaths would be prevented each year.

This map is a useful way of visualizing the terrible consequences of our auto-addicted culture. Beyond that, it can be an indispensable tool for community transportation advocates to show local officials where problem spots are and how their community compares to others.


Mayor, SFMTA, Walk SF Announce First 15 MPH School Zone

"Walk SF has been working on this campaign to get 15 mile an hour safer speed zones around schools for a long time, and we're so excited that it's coming to fruition," said Elizabeth Stampe of Walk SF (at microphone). In background: Mayor Ed Lee, SFMTA Director Cheryl Brinkman, Police Chief Greg Suhr and far right, SFMTA Chief Ed Reiskin. Photo: Bryan Goebel

San Francisco became the first large California city to implement a 15 mph speed zone around a school this morning, as SFMTA workers installed one of four signs that will go up around George Peabody Elementary School on 7th Avenue in the Richmond District. It’s part of a groundbreaking citywide initiative pushed by walking advocates to implement safe speed zones around 200 schools, and comes right as the school year is beginning this week.

“It’s really a very simple issue. Kids need to be able to get to school, to leave school and to have any other interface between the school and the street happen safely,” said SFMTA Chief Ed Reiskin, who started his job as the head of the agency on Monday. He was joined by Mayor Ed Lee, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, Supervisor Eric Mar, walking and biking advocates, SFMTA officials, San Francisco Unified School District officials and others.

“It’s verified that the streets and areas around our schools are dangerous, that they need to be slowed down,” said Lee. “It’s been shown in study after study, and the last one that we looked at was in London, and it showed that when you slow down, even a fraction of the speed, you can get a high increase in safety and a reduction in the amount of fatalities that result from a car collision.”

Lee said the signs, funded by $361,700 in Prop K sales tax funds from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, should be in place at all schools in San Francisco by early 2012.

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Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

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Dangerous Street Designs Threaten Oakland’s Communities of Color, Seniors


Pedestrian fatalities 2006-2010 (in black) from the CHP SWITRS database, 2010 race and ethnicity distribution from Eric Fisher (whites represented by red, black by blue, Asian by green, Hispanic by yellow)

With freeways and wide thoroughfares running through neighborhoods of color, the City of Oakland demonstrates many of the deadly trends discussed in Transportation for America’s new Dangerous by Design Report.

Across the country and locally, people of color make up a disproportionately large share of pedestrian deaths. Nationwide, the annual pedestrian fatality rate among African Americans is 2.39 deaths for every 100,000 people. Hispanics suffer a somewhat lower rate (1.97), while rates among Asians (1.45) and whites (1.38) are substantially lower.

As the map above illustrates, all of Oakland’s traffic fatalities during the last five years occurred in the flats, an area with a higher proportion of people of color than the relatively affluent hills. Less than three percent of pedestrian fatalities in the 2000s occurred in the hills (the most recent in 2005). You can see data for 2001-2009 on Transportation for America’s site.

Seniors are also disproportionately likely to die in a crosswalk. Nationally, people over 65 make up 22 percent of pedestrian fatalities but only 13 percent of the population. In Oakland, the risk inequality is more exaggerated: seniors account for 26 percent of pedestrian fatalities but only 11 percent of the population.

The higher mortality rate of seniors is partially attributed to older bodies’ difficulty recovering from serious injuries. Seniors are more susceptible to short crossing times and unprotected crosswalks, but several design elements that protect seniors, such as “count down” crossing signals and mid-street refuges, actually make streets safer for everyone.

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A Letter to the New York Times: Safe Streets Are Family-Friendly Streets

In light of Scott James’ egregious hit piece on the Bike Plan that ran in the New York Times today, I’ve decided to write the editors of that paper a letter, from a genuine resident of 17th Street.

What does family-friendly mean? What’s more important: safety or parking? Do most San Franciscans ever ride a bike in the city?

Before I get to all of those questions, can I suggest to you a different framing and headline for the Scott James article that ran today: Cyclists and pedestrians still left exposed because a few people oppose safe street plan.

If that sounds like the biased view of a former transit reporter, then consider this. Just this past Wednesday, as I rode my bike down 17th Street through the intersection with Dolores, I was struck by a minivan going the opposite direction that was making a left turn onto Dolores. I was thrown to the ground, lucky to only be bruised and scraped. My bike, by contrast, was totaled from the impact. I was lucky to be in decent enough shape to console the driver of the minivan, who was deeply shaken by the crash.

To paraphrase James: I’m recovering from a bad case of road rash – not from ill-fitting cycling shorts in which I wouldn’t be caught dead, but from the direct impact of a collision with a left-turning driver on 17th Street who didn’t see me traveling straight on my bike through the green light until it was too late.

Can you imagine why I’d be rubbed the wrong way by Mr. James’ suggestion that building a safer bike lane is anti-family and anti-senior citizen?

Count me in among the “emerging group of residents and businesses raising concerns about how the city is carrying out its ambitious bike lane agenda.” When the city compromises on safety to satisfy a few vocal people, citizens have every reason to raise concerns. As part of the compromise on 17th Street, the SFMTA agreed not to remove parking it planned to replace with bike lanes. Instead, it has added extremely narrow bike lanes next to the parking that are not up to the standard prescribed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ in its recently released set of urban bike facility guidelines.

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Advocates: CityPlace EIR Highlights Need for Level of Service Reform

What the view of CityPlace from Mason Street would look like. Image: Market Street Holdings LLC

What the view of CityPlace would look like from Mason Street. Image: Market Street Holdings LLC

At the heart of the San Francisco Planning Department’s 328-page Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for CityPlace, sustainable transportation advocates have pinpointed one glaring flaw. In assessing the impacts of new off-street retail parking, the environmental analysis [pdf] concludes that building a 167-space garage will have the same effect on traffic as building no garage at all.

“This environmental analysis has really pitted this project against pedestrian safety and the livability of this neighborhood,” said Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City.

CityPlace is a 250,000 square foot retail project planned for Market Street that the Mayor has trumpeted as essential for the area, “a key pillar in the continuing revitalization of Mid-Market that will bring hundreds of jobs and new revenues to boost our City’s economy and thousands of new pedestrians and shoppers to activate one of the most blighted blocks of Market Street.”

Radulovich along with attorney Arthur Levy and Walk SF had filed an appeal of the Planning Commission’s certification of the DEIR, arguing that it failed to adequately address and mitigate the dangers to pedestrians and bicyclists. Levy was also concerned the St. Francis Theater, designed by architect John Galen Howard, will be demolished and that the glass structure won’t fit in with the visual and historic character of Market Street.

Supporting the appeal seemed politically impossible for the Board of Supervisors. Instead, Supervisor Chris Daly, who represents the area, with help from Judson True, an aide to Supervisor David Chiu, brokered a deal [pdf] before the supervisors meeting Tuesday.  Market Street Holdings LLC (Urban Realty), the project’s sponsor, agreed to charge a 20 cent per vehicle exit fee at the CityPlace garage that would eventually add up to $1.8 million for “bicycle and/or pedestrian and/or transit improvements.” That pleased the supervisors and the DEIR was certified on a 9-0 vote, giving the final clearance.

The rejection of the appeal followed a public hearing in which the advocates laid out their case, and the project’s sponsors were allowed a rebuttal.

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